Sunday, October 21, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #155: Write About a World You Understand

All right, people, it’s time for another  epic “putting it all together” piece.  In  light of what I’ve subsequently figured out, I went back and re-listened to that Mark Maron interview with Danny McBride that I discussed before  and I realized that his good advice combines seven of my recent posts into one.

In my last post, I talked about how I’m finally figuring out what to write and what not to write.  Big high-concept ideas are great, but it remains absolutely essential that you also do each of these four:
  1. Choose a setting that you know well, through direct experience or through months of research. 
  2. Create characters that you can make an audience care about deeply as the story begins.
  3. Write about problems that powerfully resonate with your own problems, directly or metaphorically.
  4. Write dialogue in voices you know well.
Don’t get me wrong—you still need a cool idea.  If you only prioritize these four aspects, then you’ll end up writing about you and your friends hanging out behind the Dairy Queen.  You need to write what you know, but write it bigger.  You need to think big, but you can’t totally abandon those relationships, those problems and those voices you got to know behind the Dairy Queen, either. 

So let’s go back to that Danny McBride interview.  Last time I talked about how he came home from Hollywood feeling defeated, became a substitute teacher, and then, after he hit it finally big with his locally-made movie “The Foot Fist Way”, turned that miserable teaching experience in his hit HBO show “Eastbound and Down”. 

This time, I’ll focus on the parts I glossed over last time: why he failed in Hollywood, and why “The Foot Fist Way” succeeded. 

Let’s start off with McBride and Maron’s uproarious mockery of the failure of his first Hollywood stay.  (By this point, the pair have been cracking each other up for a good half hour, so they’re having fun):
  • McBride: A lot of the stuff I’d write was all over the place, like I’d write weird fantasy stuff, or horror stuff.  Like movies about dragon hunters, weird shit.
  • Maron: [laughs] Oh really?  You got a dragon hunter script somewhere?
  • McBride: Oh yeah.  The Draven.  He’s half-dragon, half-man.  [both laugh]  Pretty exciting.  It’s gonna be a huge franchise, of course!  The guy who works at Crocodile Café wrote this!  It’s gonna be a huge franchise, Hollywood!
  • Maron: Wow, what was the horror movie?
  • McBride: It was this weird thing which I still think is a good idea, you know back in New Orleans back in the day, when there would be floods the coffins would rise out of the ground and they would hire these guys who would go out in the swamps and retrieve the coffins, so it was the really fucked-up, apocalypse now-type dark horror film about these guys. 
  • Maron: Mercenary corpse finders?
  • McBride: In the 1800s, so it’s a period piece, too.  All the kind of shit that Hollywood’s looking for from a nineteen year old kid!  [both laugh]
These were somewhat “neat” ideas (well the coffin one moreso than The Draven), but McBride was writing about characters that he knew nothing about.  Eventually, he gave up, went home, and started teaching…but then one day back home he found himself tossing around ideas with his friend Jody Hill about a comedy set in the world of southern mini-mall martial arts classes, which they realized was an inherently humorous world that had never been seen onscreen before…
  • McBride: Jody had grown up doing Tae Kwon Do, he’s like a black belt, and I had grown up taking karate as a kid, so it’s definitely a world that we were kinda used to and we knew about and I think at the time, too, we had—both of us really fell in love with the British Office and we were obsessed with how funny it was, how awkward it was and I think it was like, we want to make something that has that sort of tone...
For the first time, they created a character that people could care about, and they did it by marrying Ricky Gervais’s comic persona to that of the southern-fried Tae Kwon Do instructors they knew.

Nevertheless, they still had to finance, shoot, and release that movie themselves because they hadn’t learned the last lesson: Write what you know, but bigger.  The Foot Fist Way was too small to become a big hit with audiences.  It was only with their next project together, “Eastbound and Down” that the last piece of the puzzle came in and McBride became a household name. 

So how many posts does this story combine?  Let’s check them off:
  1. Just Listen to Yourself (aka, know the range of your voice)
  2. Write the Emotions You Know
  3. Write What You Know, But Bigger
  4. Shortcut to Creating a Character’s Voice: Famous Persona + Someone You Know
  5. Give Every Hero a Part of Yourself
  6. If You’ve Got a Hard Sell, You Have to Know Your Assets and Liabilities (something McBride failed to figure out on his earlier projects)
  7. And most importantly: Your Career Begins When You Know What Not to Write


j.s. said...

Another good post. Although I'd caution that often the well-researched world slightly removed from your direct experience but with some of the same emotional/dramatic/narrative dynamics is the most fruitful route. David Simon, for instance, was always better on the bureaucracy of cops than newspapers, which was his direct experience.

The slight distance makes you more objective about what material you're actually working with in storytelling terms, more likely to make the right call when procedural detail conflicts with drama and less likely to be missing the forest for the trees.

This post and the last one have got me thinking about a rule I'm still trying to formulate for myself, something that I've learned the hard way in the last year or so. And it has to do with idea generation and self-honesty about what the right idea for your next thing is. I suppose it's something like "Be Honest About What Kind of Movie Really Follows From Your Initial Inspiration." A lot of times I'll get initially caught up in an image or a scene for a seemingly promising premise like your sand hog thing and find that what snaps me out of it is asking myself what the movie's actually going to be about -- not so much thematically, but from scene to scene. That is, what kinds of scenes will actually make up the bulk of this movie? Will it be about someone on the run? Will it be about someone playing some kind of detective? Will it be about characters caught up in a web of deception? Will it be about shifting planes of reality? Will it be about physical fights? [This is where Blake Snyder's work can come in handy.] In other words, does the premise still survive the abstract essence of what's going to necessarily unfold in specific detail from it?

I know for myself and a number of my friends, there's a lot of frustration setting out into an initial draft only to soon realize, "Oh, I don't want it to be a chase movie, or a detective story," or whatever. If you can get past that "What Is It?" and "I don't want it to be ______." and you've still got a story that seems like you'd watch it yourself if someone else had made it, then you're on to something.

Matt Bird said...

Absolutely, I always forget to ask that. There's nothing worse than getting to page 60 and realizing that you're writing the kind of movie you don't like.